Onlookers (Kimi Takesue, 2023)

Onlookers is a strange word. It implies passivity, if also perhaps indifference, but nevertheless invites a question. Who exactly is looking at what or is the onlooker themselves also a spectacle of attention? The opening shots of Kimi Takesue’s Laotian documentary find a row of people waiting by the side of a road. A young man stares intently at his phone, as does an older woman two stools over, while an old lady’s eyes idly flicker as she watches the passing traffic. Another woman sits further away with a dog, facing an entirely different direction. 

Of course, we are also onlookers, watching the old lady as she watches if not exactly us then perhaps our ghost as manifested in the camera. In a sense the landscape is also onlooker, a passive presence often strangely forgotten by the tourists who pass through the frames throughout the rest of the film. In the early scenes, more local sightseers can be seen visiting temples and other landmarks, like others paying more attention to getting the perfect photographs rather than immersing themselves in the experience of actually being there. 

The temples seem to loom over them, onlookers too, passively observing their conduct which is not always respectful. “Don’t smoke weed here” a large sign pleads in English while large groups of tourists congregate at a swimming hole. In an elegantly composed shot of the mountains, most of the tourists are facing the wrong direction, quite literally bending over backwards to get the perfect selfie while otherwise oblivious to the beauty all around them. In a small waiting area near a shop offering tube swimming tours, the TV seems to be tuned in to ancient episodes of Friends while potential customers haggle with the driver leaving the young boy who accompanies him to wander out into the road. 

Even religious practice seems to have become a tourist attraction, gaggles of sightseers crowding round a small hut where monks ring bells, taking turns banging gongs themselves. Takesue contrasts these acts of accidental voyeurism with the local people simply trying to go about their business, a row of women again siting on the roadway though this time to offer alms to a seemingly endless parade of monks in a near eternal loop. Much of the local economy does seem to revolve around the tourist trade, the monk’s parade also attracting is share of onlookers, while a woman washes a dog in the street and others try to get on with selling their goods before Takesue abruptly switches to scenes of schoolchildren on scooters or filling plastic water bottles from the river. 

Then again, perhaps the real onlookers are the bemused cows fighting over tufts of grass as they wander onto temple grounds. The tourist trade may also be having a negative effect on the local environment, drowning out the sounds of the nature and disrupting the natural tranquility of the area while the tourists often appear indifferent to the world around them as if it were a mere playground and the people themselves little more than onlookers observing them from the outside. Occasionally Takesue cuts to scenes of nature without any people in them, bathing in the natural beauty of the landscape unsullied by human intervention as if to remind us of the various ways in which consumerism eats away at the world in which we live if also hinting at our own desire, as onlookers, to paint these scenes with a kind of pastoral innocence coupled with an otherwise uncomfortable exoticism. 

The film ends as it began, with another roadway only this time empty save for a dog who turns around to look towards the departed people before a second dog enters the frame and barks at the camera as he passes through as if to ask where everyone’s going or perhaps what they were doing here in the first place. A gentle meditation on the nature of “travel” and the disruptive qualities of “tourism”, Takesue’s elegantly lensed images seem to argue for a more active reflection on the world and our place within it rather than remaining a perpetual onlooker observing without thought or feeling.

Onlookers had its world premiere as part of Slamdance 2023.


The Long Walk (ບໍ່ມີວັນຈາກ, Mattie Do, 2019)

“How long have we been walking this road? Is it 50 years already? And you’ve never said a word” an old man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) reflects on reuniting with a ghostly presence (Noutnapha Soydala) that has accompanied him for almost all of his life if silently. An elliptical ghost story, Mattie Do’s The Long Walk (ບໍ່ມີວັນຈາກ, Bor Mi Vanh Chark) is indeed about the meandering path we all must take but also a meditation on grief and loneliness and what it means to die. 

Beginning in the near future around 50 years from now, the film opens with an old man literally looting his past freeing an old motorbike before nature can reclaim it so he can take it apart and help it move on to its next life with a little help from the local pawn broker. Though life in this small rural village might not be so distinguishable from that of 50 years previously or even 50 years before that, modernity has crept in with transactions largely carried out via an embedded chip in the forearm which can also tell the time. On his arrival in town, the old man begins to hear a rumour that the old lady who ran the local noodle shop and had apparently been suffering with dementia has gone missing with the worry being that she may have ventured into the forest and become lost as perhaps has the old man if in a less literal sense . 

The old man is well-known locally for the ability to contact spirits often spotted on the road chatting to his ghostly companion whom no one else can see, but as we come to understand his personal cosmology may in a sense be problematic in that the presence of a ghost is like a bug in the system, something trapped in the wheel of time that shouldn’t really be there impeding its movement. The old man knows the noodle seller is dead because he found her body and moved it to be closer to other departed spirits telling her that she will never be alone again, but in doing so he’s unfairly holding on to something that should be let go for the benefit of all. The first ghost, his constant companion, is that of a young woman he found dying in the woods when he was just a child (Por Silatsa), holding her hand until she was gone. In a sense he has never let it go nor she his. 

Nearing the end of his life, the old man’s philosophy has hardened while he himself begins to fear for his own mortality drawn back into the past towards the early bereavement of his mother’s death. We might in a sense read his increasing confusion as a sign of dementia, that he’s trying to reorder a reality of which he is no longer certain while attempting to change his history with the help of his companion who is able to transport him back into the past in the hope that he can ease the pain of his childhood self while in roundabout way bringing his mother into his own old age so that he himself will not be lonely. 

What he discovers, however, is that his interventions send the world in a darker direction than he’d expected in which he discovers unpleasant truths about himself eventually coming to realise the fallacy of his life’s philosophy. “I never helped any of those women” he sighs, “they suffered more for it”, acknowledging that he trapped these lost souls in a kind of limbo in which he is also is mired in preventing them from “moving on” forced on a circular journey caught between life and death. 

At heart a tale of grief, loneliness, and guilt, The Long Walk also hints at the fracturing bonds between people in an increasingly modern society in which everyone is technically connected at all times via the chips embedded in their forearms now essential for everyday life. Looking back on his childhood, the old man remembers his father trying to take advantage of a scheme run by a foreign company supposedly to help farmers that only leads to getting solar panels installed on his farm which are in fact completely useless to him when all he wanted was a tractor, their lives had no need of electricity and its arrival benefitted them not at all. 

Meanwhile, the old man is resentful towards the noodle seller’s daughter (Vilouna “Totlina” Phetmany) for neglecting her elderly mother who was all alone and could no longer care for herself, she having left for the city never to return possibly because as we later find out she feared that her sexuality may not be accepted in the still traditional community. The old man thinks he’s helping people escape lives of loneliness and despair by giving them a painless eternity but in reality his actions are merely self-serving, attempting to hold on to something that should have been set free. Dreamlike and elliptical, Do’s meandering tale is part ghost story and part time loop conundrum, filled with the beauty of nature but also all of its pain and terror in the ever present shadow of mortality. 

The Long Walk is available now in the US on VOD courtesy of Yellow Veil Pictures and will be released on blu-ray on March 29.

Trailer (English subtitles)

MEKONG 2030 (Kulikar Sotho, Anysay Keola, Sai Naw Kham, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Pham Ngoc Lân, 2020)

Literally on the shores of an ecological crisis, the communities along the Mekong River know better than most the dangers of climate change and increasing industrialisation. Commissioned by the Luang Prabang Film Festival, MEKONG 2030 takes its cues from the recent “ten years” phenomenon, bringing together five directors from different nations along the Mekong to imagine what the situation might be in a decade’s time. 

Environmental concerns and changing times are clearly at the forefront of Cambodian director Kulikar Sotho’s Soul River in which Klark, an indigenous huntsman, discovers an ancient statue in the forest and determines to sell it to buy a better future for himself and his wife having lost everything in a flood caused by deforestation and the affects of increasing industrialisation. Unfortunately he is challenged by Sok, a former fisherman forced onto the land due to the lack of fish in the river, who claims to be the land’s owner and insists the statue is his. An amusing stand off, Klark’s machete vs Sok’s walkie-talkie, signals their respective positions as avatars of new and old. Nevertheless, the statue is too heavy for one man to carry and so they agree to work together, occasionally quibbling over their respective cuts and irritating Klark’s conflicted wife Ladet whose premonition that the statue is cursed is well and truly borne out as the two men begin to lose themselves in greed and suspicion. Yet as her closing voice over reminds us their sin is emblematic of their times in their irresponsible and arrogant desire to “sell” their nation’s ancestral treasures, be they forests, rivers, or statues the protection of which should have been their only duty. 

Depleting fish stocks and industrial pollution are also a persistent theme in the entry from Laos as a worried sister explains to her student brother concerned to see nets covered in dust on his return home from university. Xe is worried because his sister has a bruise on her face and seems to have separated from her husband and children she says to look after their mother who, as it turns out, is immune to the ongoing plague and therefore a valuable commodity to those hoping to find a vaccine. The bruise was apparently caused when their older brother, who has since become a warlord, kidnapped mum in order to monopolise her exploitation. The sister wants Xe to kidnap her back, but the deeper he gets into this awkward situation the more conflicted Xe feels knowing that whatever is actually going on both of his siblings are in effect determined to bleed his mother dry for economic gain. 

The precarious position of the older generation and the side effects of industrialisation raise their heads again in chapter three, Myanmar’s The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong in which well-meaning young village chief Charlie determines to “modernise” his community by inviting a mining conglomerate to begin digging gold on their land. An old grandma patiently teaching her grandson to care for the local herb grown for its medicinal properties is the voice of opposition, pointing out that there is nothing wrong with their lives as they are and so she feels they don’t need the complications of the “modernity” Charlie is determined to bring them. He tells her that he’s the chief now and so they’ll do as he says and so she calmly walks out of the meeting, but her animosity is soon vindicated when farmers complain their livestock has been poisoned after drinking water contaminated by the mine. Not long after a child is taken ill. Devils devour everything, but there is something we can do the old woman assures her grandson: make the mountains green again. 

Shifting into a more abstract register, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Thai entry The Line takes the river as a protagonist through the film within the film playing on a gallery wall though apparently in some way unsatisfying to its creator. Speaking in a robotic Mandarin, the video places an ironic voiceover on top of images of the river and the city juxtaposing an incongruous family history with a vision of modernity. Meanwhile, a young intern makes smalltalk with her temporary bosses who seem to have no time for her about a weird animal captured on camera in the river near her hometown, and the artist explains her intention of dramatising a vision of space and time through the story of the river.  

The sense of the Mekong as liquid time recurs in the final instalment, Vietnam’s The Unseen River, in which two stories, one of youth and the other age, run in parallel. While a young couple make a visit to a temple hoping to find a cure for the boy’s restless sleep, a middle-aged woman catches sight of a somehow familiar dog that serendipitously reunites her with her long-absent first love who went abroad to study shortly before they dammed the river. In a piece of possibly unhelpful advice, the old monk tells the young man that all he needs to do is “believe” in the act of sleeping. Sinking into a deep sleep is like surrendering yourself to the current he explains, directly linking the rythms of life to the river while the young monk attributes their youthful llistlessness, the failure to see a future that has prevented the young couple marrying, to the inability to dream. The river is both past and future, dream and reality. It is disconnection with the natural world which has so affected the young man, something he perhaps repairs borrowing the monk’s decommissioned fishing rod to gaze upon the wide river under the light of the moon. 

Giving voice to the anxieties of climate change, overdevelopment, the unequal power dynamics of large corporations operating in rural communities, the erosion of traditional culture, and the loss of the natural world, MEKONG 2030 issues a strong warning against ecological complacency but also rediscovers a kind of serenity in the river’s eternal presence even as it is perhaps flowing away from us. 

MEKONG 2030 streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival. Readers in Poland will also have the opportunity to stream MEKONG 2030 as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival 25th November to 6th December.

Original trailer (English subtitles)